Reader Question: How We Built Our Kitchen Cabinets

***As a disclaimer, this isn’t a step-by-step-anyone-with-power-tools-can-do-this kind of project.***  

We’ve had several questions and requests for more details of how we built our own cabinets.  Ashley said, “You and Ben should do some sort of a write-up as to the materials you used and how you designed the cabinets, a breakdown of the costs, etc. I also have a small kitchen and am looking to redo it as well. We’d love to make custom cabinets, but I’m not sure how much we’d have to spend or even what materials to use!  I know determining sizes would be unique to each kitchen, but if there’s any sort of snags you came across when measuring, things to look out for or remember, etc. those would be helpful to keep in mind. I think the construction is what I’m most curious about though because we could use our existing cabinets as a means of measurement.”

Those are all very good questions.  And we have answers, hopefully they’re sufficient.  Let’s start with the basics; the material and pricing.  We used 3/4 inch cabinet grade plywood for nearly everything.  The reason?  Plywood is super sturdy and we would rather over build something than have problems down the road.  Better safe than sorry.  Cabinet grade is smoother with fewer knots than other plywood, so it costs a little more.  At Montana Home Depots, a 4 foot by 8 foot sheet of plywood costs about $25.  For all the cabinets, we’ve used 17 sheets.

For the drawer fronts we used MDF because it’s smoother and we don’t need plywood for strength.  When we designed the cabinets, we pretty much kept the layout we already had with some modifications.  If you’re keeping the same layout, you can measure the cabinets to make the new ones.  Our overall sizes were nearly identical to the old cabinets, we just combined a few.  One thing to take into consideration are the wasted spaces in your current layout.  Sometimes there’s a reason for it, like in our corner cabinet.

When measuring, remember you need to allow for clearance of hardware and door swings.  But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Another thing to consider when measuring is how deep your cabinets are.  A piece of plywood is four feet wide, but you’ll want to make your cabinets just under two feet deep (ours are 23 3/4 inches deep) to maximize sheets of plywood.  Remember, the saw blade eats up a sliver of the wood.  Preventing waste will also help keep the cost down.

To keep things as simple and sturdy as possible, we make the toe kicks out of 2 by 4 studs.  This way you’re not factoring the space into the cabinet, you’re simply building two boxes to set on the other.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, how about we move on to the building phase?  Ben builds cabinets with the top and bottom pieces the full width and depth of the overall size.

For example, the cabinets by our stove are 42 inches wide by 23 3/4 inches deep by 32 1/2 inches tall, not including the toe kick.

The top and bottom pieces of this cabinet measure 42 inches by 23 3/4 inches.  Because the top and bottom are the full size, the sides and back rest inside.  So the sides of this cabinet are 23 3/4 inches deep by 31 inches tall.  The back is the smallest at 31 inches tall by 40 1/2 inches wide.

To hold everything securely, Ben applies a bead of wood glue, then nails everything together using 16 guage nails in an air nailer.

The process is similar for building the drawers, too.  The bottom piece is the entire width and depth.  Attach the sides next, which extend front to back with the height you prefer.  Each drawer will vary in height.  Finally, the back and front fit between the side pieces.  Everything is glued and nailed into place and allowed to dry.

With the cabinets installed, Ben added another thin strip of 3/4 inch plywood to attach the face framing to.  For our visible end panels, we covered the rougher plywood with smooth 1/2 inch thick MDF.  For added decorative detail, 1/4 inch thick by 2 1/2 inch wide MDF borders the edges.

Using plywood for the drawer sides does come with a complication; hiding the top edge.  You could use iron on veneer but we opted to fill the cracks with wood filler to sand everything smooth to prepare for primer and paint.

The plywood edges of the cabinets all get a face lift in the form of 1/4 inch MDF.  We decided on a mix of traditional and European style drawers.

Traditional style cabinets have a divider strip between each cabinet and drawer, like these from Young House Love:

European style cabinet doors and drawer fronts nearly touch one another, like these:

Our mix has a 3/4 inch reveal {the width of visible cabinet face} on all outside edges, but the drawers nearly touch each other.

After deciding on the reveal width, Ben started building drawer fronts.  Ours are a simple shaker style; a flat panel with a thin border detail.  To make the drawer faces, Ben cut pieces of 1/2 inch MDF to the overall size for each drawer.  Then he cut tons of 2 1/2 inch wide 1/4 inch thick strips of MDF.  Using a pin nailer and glue, Ben added the trim detail.

And now, for the super tedious part; filling, sanding, priming, and painting the cabinets for a seamless, polished look.  We like to use Elmer’s Wood Filler and a small putty knife to get in the small cracks.  For nail holes, I like to use my finger to squish the filler in the hole.  Let the filler dry overnight, then sand with a high grit (about 220) sand paper.

If necessary, fill areas and sand again.  Run your fingers over the surface.  If you feel a bump, keep on sanding.  The true test is after the coat of primer.  If you see a crack or hole once the primer has dried, don’t hold out hope the paint will fill it.  It won’t and you’ll be more annoyed about touching it up.  And, if you’re like I am, you probably will never do it.

When it’s time to install the drawer fronts, first measure, mark, and drill holes for your hardware.  To save time (and aggravation), I make a paper template.  I measure the distance between the hardware holes and poke holes to easily mark the cabinets.  You could buy a template at the hardware store, too.  These holes will come in handy when trying to attach the fronts.  Use spacers to make sure they’re lined up, then screw through the pre-drilled hardware holes, going into the actual drawer.

This will hold the front in place while you screw from the inside to secure the front.  Back out the screws, drill through the drawer, and add your hardware.

Finish off the 2 by 4 toe kick with a piece of primed and painted 1/4 inch thick  MDF.  If you use caulking, glue, or pin nails, you’ll have minimal touch up paint.

So that’s how we made our lower drawers, but we’ve still got the upper cabinets to discuss.

Upper cabinets begin in much the same way as the lower drawers.  Make a plywood box to size, but you don’t have to build drawer boxes to go inside.  Easy, right?  Hang the cabinet box, screwing into studs.  Here’s where the building is different.  Rather than 1/4 inch MDF facing, you’ll need 3/4 inch thick wood facing.  We used poplar because it’s easy to work with and durable with minimal grain.  Add any decorative side trim first, subtracting the thickness of the poplar to keep an even border.  Nail the poplar trim (ours is 1 1/2 inches wide) to the front edges, keeping the sides flush.  Fill every hole and crack (dirty!), sand smooth, prime, and paint.

If you want solid doors, follow the same steps as the drawer fronts.  But, for glass front doors, you’ve got a little more work ahead of you.  Using real wood, we used poplar but Ben would use oak if he had to do this again, cut 2 1/2 inch wide strips.  Using a router, make a tongue and groove system for the frame pieces to fit together.  Remember, this only has to be 2 1/2 inches from the long ends.  Then, apply a bead of glue and slide the pieces together.  Use pin nails to keep the frames from shifting before drying.  After the glue sets, router out a channel for the glass.

The router can’t get the corners completely square, so use a utility knife and chisel to square everything up.

We took our doors to a local glass shop where they cut and installed the glass for us.

To hang the doors, first use a Forstner drill bit to recess the hidden hinge.

Attach the hinge to the cabinet door.  Get a helper to hold the cabinet door while marking, drilling pilot holes, and screwing the hinges to the cabinet frame.

Then get a beer, wine, margarita, or a Coke and enjoy your new cabinets, relishing how much money you saved by building your own cabinets.  Speaking of how much you’ll save, let’s look at our pricing.

DIY Cabinet Building Budget Break Down:

17 Sheets of Cabinet Plywood: $249.85 {Ben got a really good deal on the plywood, though I don’t remember how…}
2 Sheets of 3/4 MDF:  $69.00 {mostly used for cabinet shelving}
7 Sheets of 1/2 MDF:  $171.50 {for drawer fronts and end panels}
2 Sheets of 1/4 MDF:  $28.00 {for drawer front banding and face frames}
4 gallons of gray Glidden paint: $57.08  {originally $87.88 because Wal-Mart didn’t have their brand in stock; used to paint the insides of the cabinets and drawers-we only used 2 1/2 gallons}
10 2×6 studs (used to support the wall we tore down) and 10 2×4 studs (used for toe kicks): $80.00  {Still grouped together because I don’t know individual costs of the studs}
Acryshield Paint$52.39  {for the exteriors of the gray cabinets}
Drawer Glides:  $56.16
Behr white paint, for upper cabinets:  $32.98
Glidden White Paint, for trim:  $24.97
Vinyl bumper pads:  $7.74 {for three packs}
Bolts and screws for drawer fronts and handles:  $14.78
Cabinet door hinges:  $34.72  for 16
Poplar for cabinet frames: $27.00 for 18 board feet
Drawer Pulls:  $63.00 {or $31.50 for 10 at Lowe’s}
Door Knobs:  $20.00 for 8
2 packages of Shelf Supports:  $9.98
Glass for Doors: $30.60
We already had all the tools as well as wood filler, sand paper, nails, etc.
Grand total for cabinet supplies:  $972.67
Price for KraftMaid cabinets:  $7,000-$9,000 {depending on the style and upgrades}
Total savings for DIYing the cabinets:  $6,027.33-$8,027.33
Things to remember:
This might seem blindingly obvious and unnecessary to mention, but you are deciding every. single. detail.  Unlike buying cabinets, you have a lot to think about and decide.  Where will your toe kicks go; only on the fronts?  How big/deep should the drawers be?  What will the visible end panels look like?  Traditional or European style?
Measure, measure, measure!  That old rule ‘measure twice, cut once’ most definitely applies to cabinet building.  Make sure to take the plywood width into consideration when determining cabinet sizes, too.
It helps to have all supplies before building starts.  Get your drawer glides so you know how big to build your drawers.
If you like your cabinet layout and the existing cabinet frames are in good condition, building new cabinet doors and drawer fronts might be an affordable way for you to update your kitchen.  Because you’ve got pre-determined sizes, building might be easier.
We have absolutely no regrets going with all drawer lowers.  They’re much more functional and we’ve picked up a lot of space, even in the same footprint.
Now, if you still have questions, lay them on me.

34 thoughts on “Reader Question: How We Built Our Kitchen Cabinets

  1. kudos to you for compiling all of this info and sharing in such great detail!
    you forgot one major step though – having a good relationship with your hubby to get you both through the stress of a kitchen reno! ha!
    your cabinets are gorgeous and you should both be proud of yourselves!

    knowing we wouldn’t be able to afford custom cabinets, we looked at them for laughs – and found that our cabinet budget would have to be at least 10K – and thats was just for the basics! we opted for ikea cabinetry and, so far, LOVE it! definitely a huge savings. i think we totaled in around $2500. our counters are scheduled to be installed this friday so we can proceed with the hundred finishing touches after this weekend! (

  2. Thanks for the post! It definitely helps. Also, I hate our kitchen (it was chosen by the builders) but it’s in good condition so we can’t justify re-doing it… but I like your idea of keeping the existing frames and redoing the cabinet faces. My fiancé probably won’t though 😀

  3. Great post! And, after seeing how much you saved, I might very well skip a well known swedish box store and try my hand for something. The thing is I only own a couple of tools, but I suppose I may invest in some more, it keep rendering profit in the long run. Thank you!

  4. Thanks for sharing your detailed kitchen remodel. I have a couple of question about the countertops..what species of wood, where did you purchase them, cost, and maintance? Love the kitchen!

    1. Hi Lizzy! Yep, that definitely helped. We wouldn’t have gotten as far if we had killed each other. Haha. So glad you love your Ikea cabs so far! And for the price, you really can’t go wrong!

      Hey Ellie, If you can talk Ben into it, I’d be happy to loan him out. As long as I get to come with and have a little vacation. 😉

      Hi Ainhoa, Yep, new doors and drawer fronts might be an option for you. If they are in good condition, it would be hard to justify tearing everything out.

      Hey Diana! We’ve definitely gotten the money out of our tools. If you give cabinet making a try, let us know how it goes!!

      Hi Dana! The countertops are Bubinga (African Rosewood). We got the slabs from a local wood importer. The 2 1/2 foot wide by 13 foot long slabs cost about $2500 for 2 inches thick. Wood is priced by a board foot at 1 inch thick, so ours were twice the price because of the thickness. We started with mineral oil for a finish and quickly realized if we wanted to USE the counters, that wasn’t the best choice. So we researched and found Danish Oil by Watco. It’s basically a cross between oil and polyurethane. Apply like an oil, penetrate and seal like a poly. That has been wonderful, but we should apply another coat soon. We’ve done two so far and it’s pretty easy. Just can’t use for 8 to 10 hours, so applying just after dinner is the easiest way to go. Whew, that was a lot. If you still have questions, just let me know!


  5. First off let me say. THANKS for all the details. I’m shocked at the price of the plywood in Montana. In Michigan, HD sells it for $42-$45 per board. I had no idea how much the cost of plywood varied across the country at a big box store. Needless to say that that cost is what keeps me from building as much as I’d like. I love the style of your doors and drawers. I’ve got a question though. Have you ever heard of retro fitting current cabinets with drawer hardware and building your own drawer boxes? I have a kitchen that is in really good condition but I hate the doors and I want all drawers on the bottom like you have. The main thing that’s stopping me is that my cabinets are white Thermofoil. I’m thinking it’s possible because I plan on building my own drawer fronts and doors. But painting the thermofoil makes me nervous. Even with the rustoleum countertop transformations kit. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. When we were searching for houses, I really tried to find one with solid wood kitchen cabinets and wouldn’t you know it, the only house we loved came with practically new Thermofoil cabinets.

  6. Wow! That’s all I can say! You did a gorgeous job, got to totally customize your kitchen, and saved a ton of money while at it. What could be better? Hubby and I will never have those mad skills, but it’s fun to drool 🙂

  7. Found your blog while looking for examples of drawer fronts. I spent 5 months doing a bedroom remodel (not bad for a 2-week project), including building my own platform bed, 5′ tall wainscoting all around, crown molding and a beautiful new floor. The only thing I didn’t do was the repurposing of my old dresser. It’s a very nice piece of Stanton furniture, but doesn’t fit my style anymore. I thought about doing something similar to what you did with your cabinets, so I appreciate the pictures and found your write-ups interesting to read. Just wanted to say thanks.

  8. I was wondering if you could share the drawer dimensions from your old remodeled kitchen. I really would like the same spacing of drawers and was trying to figure them out from the photos.


    1. Hi Dana!

      If I remember correctly, the top drawer was 6″, middle 9″, and bottom 13″. The decorative bands were 2.5″ leaving a one inch space for the top drawer handle. But I’m not positive. I hope that helps!


  9. I might has missed it but which material did you make the doors out of? Im in the middle of rebuilding a kitchen from bare stud walls, ran out of money for cabinets, I have all the tools so wy not make my own.

    1. Hi Madge!

      The glass door frames are poplar and the rest are 1/2 inch MDF with 1/4 MDF over the edges. Let me know if you have other questions! And good luck with your kitchen remodel. Feel free to share pictures on our Facebook page. 🙂


  10. Hi Amanda

    I am just trying to work out the cheapest way of doing our kitchen (very tight budget!), my joiner and I were thinking of getting chipboard carcasses from a local store and building mdf doors as I’d like to have them painted to a specific colour. He is concerned about mdf being “furry” down the edges and he was thinking about edging them. I just wondered if you have found this? Thank you! Jenna,

    1. Hi Islandbluebird!!

      You definitely could get the boxes and then make your own custom doors. For our drawer fronts, we used a piece of 1/2 inch MDF, then added the decorative details with 1/4 inch MDF. Because we did it that way, I had to fill the edges to hide the seam and sand it smooth. If you don’t have to do that, sanding the edges with a fine grit paper (200 or so) will get it smooth. Test it out on a small piece, paint it as you were planning, just to be sure. But it shouldn’t be a problem so long as you sand thoroughly. 🙂 I hope that helps, but I’m always here if you still have questions!!


      1. Thank you Amanda!! Really appreciate your help. As our budget is so tight, we’ve decided to buy solid oak doors and paint them to save on my joiners time! But we might end up building a pantry out of MDF so your advice is really helpful. Jenna

  11. Your cabinets are beautiful! The only other really in-depth tutorial I have found for kitchen cabinets is from Ana White and hers are much more complicated! I am wondering, is there any reason that doing pocket-holes and screws would be preferable to your nailing method?
    We sometimes feel like we are waging an uphill battle with ugly and budget, so it is really inspiring to see how amazing your kitchen looks as a DIY!

    1. Hi Ashleyjpetsch,

      Thank you! I’m guessing she used pocket holes to hide the fasteners. They’re both sturdy, but you’ll have to fill nail holes. Either way will work, you’ll just need a jig to make the pocket holes. I hope that makes sense, but I’m always happy to answer questions!


  12. Just out of curiosity, of the price figure you listed/spent above, what was the total linear feet of cabinetry? Thank you for all the tips.

  13. Knowing what you guys know now, would you go ahead with the MDF fronts or would you go with hardwood? Is there any concern about the MDF not holding up?

    Everything looks great!


    1. Hi Dana!

      If you can get hardwood in the sizes you need, you can go that route. Once MDF is painted on all sides, to prevent water damage, it can hold up just as well. Actually, we tested out various woods to compare MDF against and the MDF holds up better to dents than walnut and poplar. A harder wood might do better, but then you’re getting into an additional expense that you may not need. Basically, I’d suggest using a great quality paint to seal the MDF.

      Hope that answers your question, but I’m happy to answer more if you’re still curious.


  14. I’m curious what kind of paint you used for your cabinets? We recently made our own island cabinets similar to these and I’m stuck on if we need a fancy cabinet paint or if semi-gloss would work or…? What did you use?

    1. Hi Katy!

      You can get this style from Home Depot or Lowes. They’re affordable and don’t take up much space, which is a plus. However, after having used the Blum brand of glides, we wouldn’t go back to this style. We get our Blum glides from a local shop, but I’m sure a Google search with your city will give you an option or two. Let me know if you have any other questions. 🙂


  15. My hubby & I are finally getting ready to take the plunge and build our cabinet doors. I’ve poured over many different posts to get ideas and have found so many helpful tips. Thanks for sharing your project. Btw, a sheet of plywood where I live (in Alaska) is $75! We definitely plan on measuring twice, cutting once!

    1. Hi Susie!

      For our the cabinets we’ve built in our new house, we’ve used melamine sheets rather than plywood to avoid any warping issues. Luckily, it’s also cheaper. It’s great to avoid paining the insides of drawer boxes. 🙂 Happy building to you!! I’d love to see your results.


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